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Now That Was One Peach of a Race
By Staff
Date: 4/26/2004
Now That Was One Peach of a Race

By Charlie Melk

Devouring any form of coverage from the Dodge Tour de Georgia ravenously this week has taken me back—back to the auspicious days when we were all positive that a major international stage race in the United States would firmly establish itself within the pantheon of legendary stage races found across the pond . . . the Coors Classic days, the Tour de Trump days, the Tour DuPont days.  All of these races formed the basis of my love for this sport, which in turn found its genesis in the mid ‘80’s and continues unabated to this very day.

Within each of these races existed the potential for a beginning—the dawning of something big for the sport of cycling in the United States.  Every tradition needs a beginning, right?  Instead, though, one by one, each of these races folded.  If you were like me, however, you always held out hope that another version of these storied races would rise from the ashes and if not take the place of its forbears, at least stand on its own as an example of what is possible for the development of this sport in the United States—the 4th ranked cycling nation in the world, according to the UCI. 

Well, even though the Dodge Tour de Georgia isn’t a brand new race, it has, in the past year, made leaps and bounds toward providing us with that elusive North American stage race that has been missing in the hearts and minds of American cycling fans for the better part of a decade, something I can’t really say that it did for me last year.  The race itself was in doubt until just a few months ago, but it transcended itself in this year’s edition to provide us with some of the greatest stage racing seen on American soil since 1996.

Star Power

The participation of Lance Armstrong no doubt provided much needed backing to this fledgling race—when the winner of the past five editions of the Tour de France agrees to sign on, the whole game changes.  The riders make the race, and with all due respect to the formidable U.S. domestic contingent, Lance’s participation was the catalyst for greatness that had been missing in Georgia until now.

George Hincapie before Stage 7. Photo by Celia Cole/

Another clear draw to this year’s edition of the race was the participation of the best field sprinter of his generation, Mario Cipollini, with his Domina Vacanze squad.  Il Re Leone himself said that he was interested in giving the Dodge Tour de Georgia a shot when he found out that Lance would be participating.  Despite a forgettable first stage, in which he 1.) was misinformed as to the number of finishing circuits, 2.) found said finishing circuits too difficult to contest the sprint, or 3.) was still adjusting to the high heat and humidity, with a bit of jet lag thrown in for good measure (probably a combination of the three), Super Mario came through for his adoring tifosi, most of whom he’d just met, and took the stage two sprint—a long 800 meter drag seemingly custom made for him and his Domina Vacanze lead-out men.  Not only that, but he got to make friends with lovely Miss Macon on the podium—just his kind of race.

The inclusion of CSC’s dynamic duo of Bobby Julich and Jens Voigt also raised some eyebrows.  When the winner of Criterium International attends a fairly new race and a resurgent prodigal son, who recently won an extremely difficult ITT at the Tour of the Basque Country, returns to the United States to race for the first time in eight years, you just know that a good battle will ensue.

Still another great dynamic in the lead up to this race has been Chris Horner’s complete and total dominance of the domestic scene in the U.S. to this point in the season, along with the fact that he is defending champion from last year, measured against the perceived strength of an Armstrong in Tour-prep mode and the previously mentioned stars from CSC. 

Let The GC Battle Begin!

Clearly on top of his Tour de France preparation, Lance bided his time until Thursday’s morning stage to light it up.  The finishing circuits in Rome were much more difficult than most had anticipated they would be, due to the long steep drag up 2nd Street Hill.  Taking advantage of the fact that he is seemingly always on the front at the crucial moments, and this time with teammate extraordinaire, George Hincapie, as his lead-out man, Lance and select company powered over the top and barreled down the false flat finish to take a field sprint victory(!) in front of Ivan Dominguez and Ben Brooks—two field sprinters! 

Who would have ever expected that?  Heads must have been shaking all over the world.  The six bonus seconds Lance earned with that victory also allowed him to start after the other main favorites in the ITT, Chris Horner, Jens Voigt, and Bobby Julich—bravo, Lance—that was some good thinking.

Gord Fraser and Bobby Julich chat prior to Stage 7. Photo by Celia Cole/

That afternoon’s ITT held us all in rapt anticipation.  One got the feeling that Chris Horner was really going to unleash an excellent ride, and Jens Voigt had been looking strong since the first stage.  Also, Bobby Julich was on the sharp end of the race during the previous stage’s finish, attentive as usual and right behind Lance, et al, in sixth place.  The atmosphere was that of a pressure cooker.  Men and women all across the land dropped whatever work they were supposed to be doing and tuned in to whatever race ticker they could get their greedy mitts on.  One thing was for certain—this stage would separate the pretenders from the contenders before the critical mountain stages of the next two days.

As the finishers continued to come in, the time of tireless work horse Jason McCartney (Health Net/Maxxis) started looking better and better.  But then Brian Vandborg (CSC) bested his time by three seconds.  Soon after that, Chris Horner (Webcor) blasted across the line with the new best time, despite the fact that he only received his TT bike three days before this stage, going two better than reigning Olympic ITT champion Viatcheslav Ekimov (USPS/Berry Floor). 

Now it was time for the remaining big guns—Armstrong, Julich, and Voigt.  Anticipation mounted, as first Julich came in with a respectable but somewhat disappointing time, given his recent win in the ITT at the Tour of the Basque Country, slotting in just behind Horner, and then Voigt flew across the line with the new best time by 23 seconds over Horner.  The intermediate results had Armstrong with the best time, and his finish didn’t disappoint, coming in a full 22 seconds faster than Voigt.  Armstrong stamped his authority on the race with two victories in one day, and was in the leader’s jersey. 

On a tragic note, promising USA U23 rider Craig Lewis was hit by an errant driver who ignored course marshals and entered the course.  Thankfully, although Craig’s injuries were serious, he is expected to make a full recovery and may even be able to start riding again in a month.

Friday’s marathon haul was highlighted by Jason McCartney’s (Health Net/Maxxis) heroic solo victory, after attacking his breakaway group on Wolfpen Gap.  Postal held all other breakaway attempts in check, and picked up the remnants of the McCartney group by riding some stunning tempo on the front, with Antonio Cruz and Mike Creed driving the train.  Bobby Julich (CSC) and Chris Horner (Webcor) managed to get off the front, but all escape attempts were neutralized; either by the Blue Train, in the case of Horner; or the Man Himself, in the case of Julich.  Almost a minute after McCartney gave the biggest bad-ass victory salute since Lance Armstrong’s famous gesture at Alpe D’Huez a few years ago, the rest of the field came in almost fully intact, with Saturday’s decisive stage looming in their immediate future.

The Ascension of Truth

This was to be the stage where the gauntlet would be thrown down, where dreams would be realized or throttled, and where we would most likely find out who the overall winner of the 2004 Tour de Georgia would be.  Anyone who has ever ridden one knows this for certain—there is no hiding on a mountain top finish.  Period. 

Postal rode tempo at the front for the run-in to Brasstown Bald, a true beast of a climb that rises seemingly straight up from the valley after Young Harris, Georgia.  At times, the pitch of this road reaches over 20%.  Many riders resorted to 25, 26, or even 28 low gears in the back just to ascend this monster, and Johan Bruyneel even compared it to the Angliru climb made (in)famous in the Vuelta a Espańa for its treacherous incline.  The stage was set for a showdown, and a showdown is just what we got. 

As the riders turned on to the climb proper, a relatively steady pace prevailed, but then Cesar Grajales (Jittery Joe’s), who lives nearby and has been training on this mountain for regularly three months in eager anticipation of such an opportunity, jumped off the front, with Armstrong, Voigt, and Horner in tow. 

Grajales kept gaining, and the race exploded from the front of the peloton to the back.  In the end, Grajales stayed away by 17 seconds, despite a sincere effort on the part of Armstrong and Voigt to bridge, and GC hopefuls Horner (at 27 seconds) and Julich (at 1 minute 8 seconds) saw their last opportunity to get any time back on Armstrong disappear.  In the meantime, Grajales’ efforts saw him deservedly rise to 6th on GC (seeing all of the support tape on his right knee, I felt extremely sorry for his tendons after that climb).

The Grand Finale

As is often the custom with European stage races, stage seven of the Dodge Tour de Georgia was a promenade of sorts, with the sprinter’s teams keeping everything together for one more bunch kick to the line and Postal keeping tabs on all of the GC threats who still might harbor some intention of sneaking away . . . and Horner did try, but to no avail. 

Never one to miss a shot at the line, Gord Fraser (Health Net/Maxxis) nabbed his second stage victory, to go along with his excellent win in the first stage, in front of Juan Jose Haedo (Colavita Olive Oil/Bolla Wines) and Mario Cipollini himself, who apparently didn’t even realize that he had taken third and promptly left.  “Ladies and gentlemen, Mario has left the building!” 

Apparently this mistake cost him about 200 Swiss francs and the prize money for third place as well.  No matter, he is reported to have said that he would like to stay in the U.S. rather than go back to Italy . . .something about a Miss Macon (only kidding, people). 

The Stage 7 podium. Photo by Celia Cole/

Another sprinter who made his presence felt throughout this year’s edition of the race was Ivan Dominguez (Colavita Olive Oil/Bolla Wines), who was always in the hunt for the win, being beaten into second place by Gord Fraser on stage one, by Mario Cipollini on stage two, and by Lance Armstrong (still can’t get over that) on stage three, along with finishing fifth in the final stage, showing remarkable tenacity and consistency.

It Can Be Done

This year’s edition of the Dodge Tour de Georgia had a little bit of everything.  The quality of the field, both European and domestic, was extremely high—maybe even the best quality field that has ever been assembled in the United States for a stage race.  We saw the Tour de France champion victorious in his home country for the first time since the Cascade Classic in 1998—and let’s face it, folks, he absolutely lit it up on stages three and four with some serious panache. 

We watched the all time record holder for stage wins in the Giro d’Italia win a stage and closely contest several more.  We saw two of the top D1 teams in the world, CSC and USPS/Berry Floor, duke it out for overall supremacy on U.S. soil!  On top of that, Health Net/Maxxis finally emerged, with three stage wins, as the super domestic team that they were touted to be at the beginning of the season. 

In terms of domestic GC achievements, Chris Horner led the way, with a very impressive third overall; Cesar Grajales wasn’t far back, at sixth overall; Scott Moninger (Health Net/Maxxis) made his long awaited for comeback to the top level, at seventh overall; Eric Wohlberg (Sierra Nevada) defended his GC position well after the ITT  to finish 10th overall; and relative newcomer, all arounder extraordinaire, and Daily Peloton favorite Adam Bergman (Jelly Belly/Aramark) rode a consistent and strong race to finish 11th overall.

The domestic talent wasn’t overshadowed at this event by a long shot—given the opportunity, in fact, they proved that they are up to the challenge of facing the best of what Europe has to offer in terms of competition.  In fact, out of seven stages, D3 domestic teams nabbed four victories.  That is not only impressive, it’s outstanding.

The Jersey winners. Photo by Celia Cole/

The folks at the Dodge Tour de Georgia have proven that you can assemble all of the essential elements to create a top flight stage race in the United States, and the fact that they were able to due so with such skill in so little time bodes well for the future of professional cycling in the States.  They have left us little doubt—it can be done.

Photo by Celia Cole/

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